Thursday, March 31, 2005

Terri Schiavo RIP

Terri Schiavo is dead. Maybe Christopher Hitchens is right that she's been dead for years. At any rate, I can't help but feel some relief, if not for Terri's sake and that of her family, then for my own. I didn't actually watch any TV coverage of her case, but just reading about this religio-socio-political psychodrama was getting painful.

I'm depressed by how much hatred her case has aroused, especially since a lot of it has been coming from people who say they are Christians.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005


A friend and colleague of mine chaired a faculty forum recently on whether UNCG is infected with the kind of "liberal groupthink" that Mark Bauerlein wrote about in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

About 20 faculty and staff attended. The discussion didn't start off auspiciously, from my point of view, when one faculty member pointed out that, since America's politics is so far to the right of Europe's, the campus really needs to reflect even more left-leaning views than it does now.

This colleague (a very kindly and engaging person, by the way) also denied on statistical grounds that "groupthink" could possibly exist on campus, since studies show that there's a viable minority of conservatives at universities, and hence intellectual diversity must be present.


I piped up and shared a few personal anecdotes about what Bauerlein calls the common assumption: "The assumption is that all the strangers in the room at professional gatherings are liberals." In my experience, this often manifests itself by faculty using a Bush-bashing joke as a social ice-breaker, which actually works quite well -- for everybody else in the room. Actually, it works quite well for me, too, since I know they're doing it to reach out and be friendly. I appreciate the effort, and usually find some way to change the subject.

After an hour or so of discussion at the forum, only one other faculty member spoke up to agree with me that it might be a good idea to invite more conservative speakers to campus. One person wondered why we would want to do that, since we have such a great line-up of distinguished speakers this year: Maureen Dowd, Julian Bond, Cornell West. Another faculty member thought that instead of being "led by the nose" into a "false political dichotomy," we should read What's The Matter With Kansas? instead (nods of agreement).

Hmmm, again. If you know those speakers, and that book, you might be inclined to detect a bit of groupthink here. I guess I didn't expect my colleagues to smack themselves on the forehead and say, "Of course -- let's invite George Will!" but it was disappointing to see them actually resisting the idea of bringing conservatives to campus, however politely they were doing so.

At any rate, all this is by way of introduction to a new political science study in The Forum that indicates that conservatives, Christians, and women may be being denied advancement because of bias:

A multivariate analysis finds that, even after taking into account the effects of professional accomplishment, along with many other individual characteristics, conservatives and Republicans teach at lower quality schools than do liberals and Democrats. This suggests that complaints of ideologically-based discrimination in academic advancement deserve serious consideration and further study. The analysis finds similar effects based on gender and religiosity, i.e., women and practicing Christians teach at lower quality schools than their professional accomplishments would predict.
UPDATE March 31: I've deleted the comments on this post, since (well-meaning) commenters began discussing UNCG faculty by name. My post was about a public forum where the press was present, and everyone understood that their views would be a matter of public record. But I don't want this discussion to devolve into a critique of individual faculty in their classrooms. That's a matter that students should take up with the faculty themselves or their department heads.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

The New Latin Mass

Holy Week is to the Catholic liturgical calendar what marathons are to runners.

At my parish, Our Lady of Grace, we had a two-hour mass on Holy Thursday, a two-hour prayer service on Good Friday, and an almost three hour mass last night at the Easter Vigil. Liturgies of this length enforce a radical spiritual slowing-down on me, giving me a glimpse, I think, of the deliberate pace of life and worship in centuries past. It takes a little getting used to, but it's good. I was especially proud of my son, Sam, who was a tireless altar server at all three liturgies.

Though the form of the services has not changed at all since the Second Vatican Council, in the last few years their aesthetics have been radically altered by the changing demographics of our parish. On Holy Thursday, about half of the worshippers were Hispanic, and the Bible readings, prayers, and songs alternated between Spanish and English.

The aesthetic contrast between the Hispanic hymns and singers and their English-speaking counterparts was a little startling. Accompanied by guitar and tambourine, a woman in the balcony sang what sounded to me like Spanish love ballads to Jesus. She had a small chorus of back-up singers, and though I couldn't understand a word of what they were singing, I was almost overwhelmed by the tenderness and intimacy of their voices.

The English-speaking choir was equally beautiful, though in an entirely different idiom. Singing Mozart, along with traditional American hymns, they typified the order, complexity, and dignity inherited from the European liturgical tradition.

I left these services feeling spiritually rejuvenated and optimistic, not only by the liturgies themselves, but by the fact that these two groups of people -- old-fashioned, white-bread American Catholics, and Spanish-speaking immigrants -- seemed quite contented and pleased to share the year's holiest celebrations with one another.

Happy Easter!

Friday, March 25, 2005


I noticed this honeybee on our winter honeysuckle when I was doing some yardwork today. I haven't seen many in my yard for a long time. There aren't nearly as many of them now as there used to be a generation ago; most wild populations have been killed off by bee mites, but there must be a hive somewhere near my house.

Two of my favorite works of art deal with bees: the fourth book of Vergil's Georgics, and Peter Fonda's movie, Ulee's Gold. I haven't read The Secret Life of Bees yet, but it's on my list.

Sorry the bee is out of focus. Bees are hard to photograph!

Hamilton Lakes confession

I am a serial trespasser.

Hamilton Lakes, that beautiful neighborhood to the south of Friendly Avenue and west of Holden Road, owns and maintains a private wooded park with trails, playgrounds, and lakes. My family and I have been using it illegally for walks and runs for more than a decade.

It's a great place for dog runs, too; here's a picture of our youngest Malinois, Hero, that I took this morning after a jog on the trails. Clearly, she likes it there, too. (Yes, she's on a leash -- it's just hard to see.)

Thanks, Hamilton Lakes!

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Summit Avenue Shopping Center conversation

I had an engaging conversation a couple of days ago with the owner of the record shop at the Summit Avenue Shopping Center. I was killing a little time, waiting for Radio Shack to open, so I stepped inside and looked around.

The first thing that caught my attention was the presence of vinyl -- actual vinyl -- records. So I asked the clerk, who turned out to be the owner, who he sold them to. Mostly DJ's, he said, because they can mix them and do that scratchy-record thing. But he also told me that you can still order almost anything on vinyl if you want it. (And I noticed later that Radio Shack still sells old-fashioned turntables.)

I asked him how business was doing, and he told me it was very good. Last year the Greensboro police worked with the Summit Avenue / Bessemer Avenue business owners to solve their persistent problems with panhandlers and petty criminals, and it worked. He said all of the business owners have remained vigilant about calling the police about any suspicious activity. I've noticed the difference at the Summit shopping center myself. It's a nice place to shop, though I usually feel a little self-conscious, since nearly all of the shoppers, clerks, and owners there are black (and I'm not). But I've never had an unpleasant experience there. Just the opposite, in fact. The clerks at Radio Shack are always knowledgeable, and the manager of the Foot Locker there once gave me some outstanding advice about trap and skeet shooting.

The record store owner (he's black, too) told me about how he used to manage the store for Willie's, a record chain that specializes in urban and hip-hop music, and bought it when Willie's couldn't turn much of a profit. He doubled his grosses by doing two things: he devoted a third of his shelf space to gospel music, and he stopped playing hip-hop in the store, even though hip-hop accounts for most of his revenue. He learned, by listening to his customers, that many potential gospel customers were put off by that kind of music. But most hip-hop customers don't mind gospel at all, since that's what they grew up with. "Some of the kids even buy gospel CD's for their mammas or grandmas," he said. So he plays gospel in the store.

He volunteered to me how much he pays himself out of the store's revenues, and it turned out to be about double my gross income. He also owns another store, so he's doing pretty well. Maybe I should go into CD retail.

His experience contrasts very sharply with the reports of Ill Ridge about the economic and social situation over on Phillips Avenue, just a few blocks away. I don't know what to make of that, exactly, but I thought it was interesting.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Signs of spring

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour . . .

Well, it's almost April. The birds have been eating the flowers on this winter honeysuckle for more than a month; the green berries you see here will soon be blood-red, and the birds will eat them, too.

The Siberian Irises have started to poke through,

and the periwinkle is blooming,

as are my next-door-neighbor's daffodils.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Terri Schiavo

Usually I don't blog about national issues because I don't have anything to add to them that someone a lot smarter than I am hasn't said already.

But some of my friends in the Greensboro blogopolis are quite heated up about the intervention of the U. S. Congress in the Terri Schiavo case, and I felt the need to say something in response to them. I don't think I will change any minds about what to do with Terri, but I'd like them to think about a few things.

First, here's what my friends are saying. My neighbor David Hoggard says,

This whole thing sickens me.
He goes on to quote former Greensboro N&R political writer Alex Wayne who says,
Quite frankly, these people give Christianity a bad name. And if I were a Christian moderate -- is there such a thing anymore? -- I'd be pretty damn concerned, and I'd be pretty damn loud about it.
Sue of Southern Rants, says in David's comments,
You know, I know, we all know, this has nothing to do with poor Terry Schiavo or her much-maligned husband who's carrying out her wishes. It has to do with politics stepping into the bedroom (again) and sucking up to "pro-life" groups who don't really care about this particular life but just want their names in the paper on what they perceive as the correct side of this horrible issue.
Unlike Sue, I don't really know anything about the motives of Terri's husband, or her parents, or of the judges who've made decisions in the case, or of the individual legislators in Florida and Washington, or of the people who are protesting & praying on both sides of the issue, and I don't see how we can know those motives clearly, and in any case they don't particularly affect the question of what to do about Terri.

I do know that Terri is extremely brain-damaged, and according to the informative website that David linked, medical experts disagree on whether Terri has a little of her cerebral cortex left, or none. The fact that a court has ruled that she has none is, to me, not any more dispositive than is the fact that Congress has voted the other way. Her parents believe she is sometimes responsive; her husband does not. In short, there is doubt about her mental state and abilities. She does not appear to be unconscious. Her husband says she would wish to die under such circumstances; her parents say she would not. There is no documentary evidence for either position.

In such a case, the argument for euthanasia (for that is what death by starvation and dehydration is) must amount to something like, though we cannot be entirely sure of what her inner life is like, both her present quality of life and her chances of improvement seem so minimal, that it is morally acceptable to deprive her of them.

You don't have to be a fundamentalist (which I'm not) to have serious ethical problems with that. It presupposes that the value of being human derives solely from some -- as yet vaguely specified -- inventory of cognitive or physical capacities. And I don't accept that. Even if I did, I wouldn't be sure that Terri would qualify for euthanasia by starvation, which is quite painful. You can go to jail for doing that to a dog.

As my wife said to me, if you're going to make a mistake in this case, why not err on the side of life? Especially since Terri's parents seem willing to carry that burden. In this light, the question of the husband's marital rights seems weak, unless one wishes to assert that it is within the husband's rights to decide such a life-and-death issue when the facts are in doubt, as ancient Roman husbands did. (Talk about "turning back the clock" . . .)

Finally, I can't stop myself from remarking on some of Alex Wayne's comments about a photo of people praying for Terri. He said,
But pictures like this one scare me. I see Christian fundamentalism on the rise in this country, influencing all sorts of public policy debates, and I wonder if it's not much less dangerous than the rise of Islamic fundamentalism elsewhere in the world. Fundamentalism is fundamentalism, no matter whom you pray to.
The woman in the photo is holding a rosary, indicating that she's Catholic. CouldAlex not know that, not only are Catholics not fundamentalists, but that many Christian fundamentalists are actually hostile to Catholicism? But, given that, what would Alex think of a rosary-wielding woman in prayer in front of a prison protesting a state execution? How about those Dominican nuns who were imprisoned for protesting nuclear weapons? Dominicans pray the rosary every day. Are they, too, scary like fundamentalists?

But, even if the woman in the photo were a fundamentalist, if Alex can't see the vast chasm between people of faith using their constitutionally-guaranteed rights to ask a democratically-elected government to intervene in saving the life of a hapless woman (whether wisely or not), and religious fanatics using violence to destroy governments and kill thousands of innocent civilians, well . . . I'm just speechless. Did he think about what he was writing for even one second?

NBC's Apocalyptic theology

"This spring a beleaguered NBC is finding God - and delivering him to viewers - in a six-episode series based on the apocalyptic prophecies laid out in the Book of Revelation," according to a story in the New York Times (registration required).

Yet another case of the liabilities of getting what you ask for, I guess. Christians have been complaining for decades that the entertainment industry is either hostile to, or ignores them. But I'm wondering whether those two options aren't preferable to having TV producers do theology. Those guys aren't exactly known for thoughtful or well-informed work, are they?

The inspirations for the upcoming series (called "Revelations") appear to be Hal Lindsey's The Late, Great Planet Earth, Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, Tim and Beverly LeHay's Left Behind series, and the Book of Revelation.

Eeeeeek! The first three on that list are (in my view) pure theological and ecclesiological hackery, and the last one is simply the most difficult to interpret book of the Bible.

There's something to be said for making people study systematic theology, immerse themselves in church history, and learn a little Greek and Hebrew before allowing them to go out and become de facto apostles.

And if NBC's aim in popular theologizing is merely profit, they might want to look into the circle of Hell that Dante assigns to people who do that sort of thing.

Saturday, March 19, 2005


I did something today that I swore I would never do. I let my daughter buy clothes at Abercrombie and Fitch.

There was a big uproar a couple of years back about nudity and kinky sexuality in Abercrombie's catalog, but that wasn't really the big issue for me. After all, I don't have to look at the catalog.

For me, it's those huge photos in the Abercrombie store. The models in them radiate a vacuity that is both aggressive and vaguely malicious; a devotion to vanity so severe, and so lacking any hint of kindness or humanity, that I find them unsettling whenever I pass by.

The sexually predatory gazes on many of the models' faces -- some of them clearly just post-pubescent -- are designed, I expect, to disconcert parents like me, and thus to appeal to teenaged children in direct proportion to the adults' degree of discomfort. It works on both counts.

I let my daughter shop there because they had the clothes she wanted, and I've discovered that if we buy her clothes she doesn't like, she simply won't wear them. But she didn't get anything with Abercrombie's name visible on it. Thank goodness for that.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Southern constructions of snow

No, I'm not talking about half-melted snowmen.

I'm thinking of the fact that, here in the North Carolina piedmont, lots of people break out their umbrellas when it snows, as it did this morning. I don't ever remember anybody doing that when I lived in Iowa.

Of course my impulse as an academic is to try to give some over-intellectualized explanation to things like this. So, from a Lévy-Straussian structuralist perspective, we could argue that midwesterners construct weather in categories characterized by typical bipolar oppositions:

summer : winter
rain : snow

Thus in the midwest, the harmonic consonance between summer and rain is expressed in the use of the umbrella in those seasons and conditions. The umbrella is replaced by the knit or eared cap in the winter. Thus we see the following set of bipolarities:
summer : winter
rain : snow
umbrella : cap
But in the south, weather, seasons, and precipitation are constructed differently, because the boundaries between summer and winter are blurred by the fact that it seldom snows here. The more salient categories for southerners are the following:
clear : precipitation
- - - : umbrella
The dashes signify that there is no accessorial component to clear weather, but that for southerners, rain and snow are not opposed categories; rather, they are part of the same weather construction. Thus they use the umbrella in rain AND snow.

Or it could be that southerners don't like getting snow on their heads.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Another kind of urbanity

You have to read this by Ill Ridge, who lives pretty close to where I do. It's a whole different take on urbanity.

Bon appétit

My money and my mouth re: density

A while back I poked fun at a fellow Greensboro resident for complaining about townhouse and condominium developments. Robin Parker wrote a letter to the News & Record saying,

Mayor Keith Holliday made the comment that 'It scares people to death' when talk arises of condos being built nearby. There are valid reasons why people are scared. Is there anyone in Greensboro who can't wait to have condos or townhomes in their back yard?
I responded with a description of the advantages and disadvantages of multifamily residences in my part of town, and ended with this:
So anyway, am I scared of townhomes and condos? Hah. Bring 'em on.
As someone once said, you better watch what you wish for -- you might get it. And so I shall.

The Dascalakis Companies, which for 25 years have owned a 6-acre empty tract on the block behind my house ("in my own back yard," as Robin might put it), are planning to build a community of both single-family homes and condominiums, including as many as 72 units.

I still say, "Hah. Bring 'em on."

The architect on the project, Ramsay (Jerry) Leimenstoll, has conducted a survey of housing in our area, which he used to produce a set of architectural design guidelines for the development. Jerry's wife Jo heads up UNCG's program in historic preservation. I think we're in very good design hands, and Jerry and the Dascalakis Companies have expressed a strong desire to work with the neighborhood at every step along the way.

News of the development has gone out to the neighborhood, and contrary to my expectation, there has been no hue and cry to stop it, though I fully expect the neighborhood to negotiate vigorously about the total number of units and the design and layout of the project. Maybe some serious opposition will gel at the next neighborhood meeting. But a number of residents are very happy about the proposal.

There's an interesting historical background to this story. About 25 years ago, the Dascalakis Companies bought the property in question, bulldozed down all the existing trees, and proposed to build a large apartment complex with over 100 units. That did cause a great hue and cry; one so great that it caused the neighborhood to become what it is now, the Charles B. Aycock Historic District. Before that, it had just been a neighborhood with no name and no association.

The Aycock neighborhood association back then managed to stop the Dascalakis Companies from building those apartments. But times have changed.

Developers have learned that it's possible to work with neighborhoods and come up with sensitive, acceptable proposals, even if they involve increased density. They're doing this because close-in neighborhoods have proved to be very popular in Greensboro, commanding higher prices and retaining their real estate value better than outlying neighborhoods. And of course downtown neighborhoods have suddenly become the hot new thing in Greensboro real estate.

It's also true that older neighborhoods have learned that it can be a good thing to have a lot of new neighbors, even if they live in condominiums.

UPDATE 3.17.05: I have removed a sentence that some neighbors found offensive. Here is some more pertinent information about the Dascalakis Companies' proposal for the Chestnut St. development.

The developers' intent is to build single family homes fronting Chestnut St., similar to what was proposed by them a couople of years ago, except for two quad units at the entrance into the rest of the complex.

The units behind these would be multi-unit condominiums. When asked about the look of these buildings, Demetrius Dascalakis cited the Cannon Court apartments on Elm Street in Fisher Park as an example. Jerry Leimenstoll will be working on designs based on historic architecture in Aycock or other historic buildings in Greensboro.

No building will be higher than three stories in order to maintain the height of the buildings currently in the neighborhood. The property slopes gently down away from Chestnut St. toward the railroad tracks.

Power lines will be buried.

The large, ancient magnolia trees will remain as a centerpiece to the area. They plan to keep some green space around the tree.

The owners are walking the property this week with the city’s arborist with the intention of identifying other trees of significance.

All homes are to be owner occupied. The developers have offered to put restrictions on the titles so that no one person can own more than 2 or 3 units (to keep it from turning into an apartment complex).

Expected completion: 24-36 months.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Allen's neighborhood

Allen Johnson, the editorial page editor of the News & Record, was nice enough to mention me and my blog in his Sunday column. Like a lot of people I've talked to, he finds his suburban house quite satisfactory, but his suburban neighborhood less so.

In his typically humane way, he suggests that he might get more out of his neighborhood life if he put more of himself into it. I'm sure he's right about that.

But it's hard for a neighborhood to be a neighborhood if there are no places where that can happen. Neighborhoods congeal in public places like pocket parks and on sidewalks, where people can comfortably bump into each other and socialize informally, or in in-between places like front porches, where you can plunk yourself down for a drink, and your presence there is an invitation for passers-by (on the sidewalk) either just to wave and move on, or to saunter up for a little conversation.

If that stuff is missing from your neighborhood, Allen, there's going to be a new development of single-family houses and condominiums in our neighborhood very soon. I'm sure we can find you something suitable.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

My new business venture

I've just received an urgent e-mail from the Independent Commission of Eminent Persons (ICEP), offering me the opportunity to make millions of dollars, just by letting them use my bank account for the transfer of funds from deceased holocaust victims!

Do you think I should take them up on their offer?

Just kidding again! I'm convinced that these internet scammers have a sense of humor. I loved the invitations I got from Yasser Arafat's widow and from Saddam Hussein's daughter to cash in on their caches of PLO / oil-for-food money. If we're lucky, maybe I'll soon be getting offers from the Assad family in Syria, or the House of Saud.

But the Independent Commission of Eminent Persons? How can I join that club, I wonder? Is it like the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen?

I googled the ICEP, and found a lot of great organizations. There's the Illinois College of Emergency Physicians, the Integrated Countryside & Environmental Plan, the International Conference on Electronic Packaging ("Electronic packaging in the next decade!"), the International Counselor Exchange Program, the Institut Consulaire d'Enseignement Professionnel, ICEP Design (nice music and images), and the International Cult Education Program. And don't forget the International Civic Engagement Project, the International Camper Exchange Program, and my personal favorite, the International Celebrity Exchange Program, "providing a marketplace for too familiar and worn out national celebrities to be auctioned to other countries, where there might be need and demand for such characters." Can I buy stock in this venture?

And let's not leave out Industrial Coatings and Equipment Programs, Inc., the International Chief Emergency Physician training course, the Instituto Costarricense de Estudios Políticos, the Interdisciplinary Career Enhancement Program for U. S. Customs agents, or the Berliner Institut für christliche Ethik und Politik.

But, believe it or not, there really was an Independent Commission of Eminent Persons, and Paul Volcker was its chair.

I wonder if there are any open seats.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Parental Advisory: Adults Only

I've had a sneaking feeling since writing my previous post that my parents think I've made them out to be nothing more than gin-drinking, cigarette-smoking, hard-partying, neglectful ne'er-do-wells. Nothing could be further from the truth.

They used to be gin-drinking . . . just kidding, Mom and Dad!

I have a head full of wonderful stuff they did with and for my brother and me. A. A. Milne at bedtime. Games of horse around the basketball hoop. Leaf bonfires in the fall. Walking to my first day of kindergarten with my mom. Watching my dad, dressed as Santa Claus, hand out gifts to our Cub Scout pack. Car trips to the Rockies, and then to the east coast in the momentous year of 1969 (on the car radio: "Good Morning, Starshine," and "In the Year 2525," and "Yummy Yummy Yummy"). And on and on.

But my parents also gave us the gift of being adults themselves, of having a portion of their lives into which the kids weren't invited, even though they themselves were quite young. This part of their identities was always a source of wonder to me.

As I said, when they had parties, my brother and I would sit at the top of the stairs, and listen to them tell stories about people we didn't know, tell jokes we didn't get, and laugh and sometimes argue about things we didn't understand. They drank martinis and smoked cigarettes. The men wore coats and ties and smelled of aftershave, and the women wore cocktail dresses, and makeup, and perfume, and high heels. Sometimes we were allowed to stay up and greet the guests in our pajamas, and then we were sent off to bed. The whole thing was absolutely mezmerizing, acutely adult, and also somehow intensely comforting.

Because if your parents are free to be fully adult, then you are free to be fully a kid. And you can't really beat that, can you?

Wednesday, March 9, 2005

The rise of the KOSC

If you are a parent of a child between the ages of conception and 18 years old, you are probably involved in at least one KOSC.

What's a KOSC? There's no reason you should know, since it's an acronym I just made up. It stands for Kid-Oriented Subculture (not to be confused with KOS).

To outsiders, the very existence of many KOSCs is usually imperceptible, or at least impenetrable. That's true of our current KOSC. For example, do you know what a feis is? Can you tell the difference between a slip jig and a treble reel? Between a school dress and a solo dress? I know these things because my daughters are Irish dancers. I had no idea how deeply I would be involved in the Irish dance KOSC when I first heard the seemingly-innocent question, "Dad, can I take dance lessons?" Of course, sweetie. How big a deal can a few lessons be?


After trips to feiseanna all over the southeast, after performances at schools, malls, and ladies' clubs, after countless pairs of soft and hard shoes worn out or outgrown, after school dresses, Irish dance CD's, curly wigs, headbands, knee socks, sock glue, dress bags, and travel duffles had been bought, traded, and re-sold, I learned that it is a very big deal indeed. And until two years ago, I had no idea that this subculture existed.

But Irish dance is only our latest KOSC. I know how to win the Pinewood Derby (Cub Scouts), how to get ten boys to build birdhouses all at the same time (Webelos), how to tie a bowline knot (Boy Scouts), and when to disqualify a swimmer for an illegal backstroke turn (swimming). I've attended many hours -- sometimes days -- of special training in order to participate in these KOSCs. We've also joined the gymnastics KOSC, the kiddie soccer KOSC, the Suzuki violin and cello KOSCs, and the horsebackriding KOSC.

Many parents are deeply involved in sports KOSCs like classic soccer, lacrosse, little league, etc. and function as coaches, assistant coaches, officials, or chaperones, in them. Some KOSCs are quite loosely organized but still powerful There's a KOSC of elementary-school birthday parties, for example, whose expensive conventions parents are expected by their kids to live up to. Most parents start participating in KOSCs even before their kids are born, in the childbirth KOSC, and then keep on going from there: playgroup KOSC, preschool KOSC, and so on. And then of course there' s the PTA.

KOSCs are big business. Almost every KOSC requires uniforms or outfits, accessories, lessons, and fees. If you add up all the dresses, shoes, wigs, bags, helmets, swimsuits, goggles, instruments, checks to teachers / associations, competition fees, and travel, I think it we're talking about a year of tuition and fees at Duke (where my children will go over my dead body, by the way).

KOSCs are nothing new, but it seems that they are much more pervasive and highly-organized than when I was a kid. For example, my dad was a scoutmaster, and my parents took me to music lessons, and attended some recitals and performances. They went to my school plays. They did everything that parents of their generation were expected to do.

But they never once drove me to a sporting event or watched me play a game.* My friends and I played baseball, football, and basketball in empty lots and driveways. We also played army, kick the can, freeze tag, capture the flag, and countless free-form games of danger and violence throughout the neighborhood. When it was time for us to come home, my mom stepped out the front door and blew a whistle.

My parents' social lives weren't dominated by KOSCs as ours are. I remember my parents having parties that involved real adult activities like drinking gin martinis, smoking cigarettes (my mother would set them out in bowls), playing cards, and singing bawdy song until the wee hours. They had friends who sometimes used colorful language, who argued about religion and politics, and who made up later. They told funny jokes that you don't tell to kids, and enjoyed each other immensely. (It was my brother's and my exquisite pleasure to eavesdrop on their revels from the top of the stairs.) Few of their friends were KOSC friends. That's not true of us.

I don't think modern, KOSC parents are better than the older generation, nor worse. But I'm pretty sure that, as kids, we had a lot more fun playing games, without our parents looking over our shoulders, than today's kids do at their highly-organized games. I'd like my kids to have that kind of fun and independence, too.

The trouble is, we did some other things as kids that our parents didn't do when they were kids, and I think many of us are terrified that our kids will do those same things. Hence the rise of KOSCs.

Well, I'm off to take the girls to Irish dance practice, and after that, to a track meet. KOSC on, parents.

*Clarification: Of course my parents would have taken me to games, had I been interested in organized sports. But I wasn't, and they (blessedly wise) never pressured me to join any.

Monday, March 7, 2005

Coat and tie

A few of my colleagues in the humanities have been gently poking fun at the fact that I've taken to wearing a jacket and tie to work. One of them is taking bets on when I'll give it up. Others just seem surprised. "Big meeting with the dean today?" they ask. But they laugh when I tell them I'm doing it to raise my students' level of respect for the humanities.

So it's nice to get some moral support from a man who knows about such things: Manolo over at Manolo's Shoe Blog:

The grown up peoples they require the grown up clothes.

Do not denigrate the importance of looking "normal." Fashion it is about looking good, not seeking out the look of the abnormal, or the outre, or the purposely ridiculous.

Manolo says, the true radical in the serious well-cut, well-tailored clothes is the one whose thoughts, talents, and actions will change the world. The attention-seeking adolescent in the motley clothes of the fool, this person is merely the comedic sideshow.

I decided to wear "the grown up clothes" after attending the Second International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities in Prato, Italy last summer. The attendees were a nice group of scholars, and some of their presentations were interesting. But they were almost all about as scruffy looking as the busload of asylum escapees in One Flew Over the Cucoo's Nest, and I didn't see how anyone outside of academia could take them seriously.

Now if I could only afford a pair of good shoes.

Vice and virtue in Victorian architecture

Victorian houses in America differ so radically from their 21st-century counterparts in style and layout that they beg us to ask why.

The Victorians lavished ornament on the outsides of their houses to a degree that has seemed excessive, even repulsive, to later generations. They indulged in architectural whimsies like turrets, stained-glass windows, widow's walks, muliple gables, and exotic paint schemes that expressed the exuberance of the age (we don't think of the Victorians as exuberant, but they were) as well as its ostentation. Only the passage of many decades has made these excesses seem venerable and quaint rather than sentimental and tasteless.

But other features of Victorian houses reveal forgotten virtues of the people who lived in them. Nearly all Victorian houses had relatively large, roofed verandas; middle-class houses usually had a front parlor which was reserved for the reception of guests; and they built their houses close to the street, putting their grander houses on big, busy streets or on corners.

Thus, in Greensboro, the Sternbergers built large houses that fronted Summit Avenue, a road which Caesar Cone himself helped finance as a major thoroughfare between his textile mills and Greensboro's downtown.

The Victorians' devotion of so much of their houses' square footage and design to spaces for social interaction tells us how greatly they valued the virtues of hospitality and engagement in community life. Read, for example, some of the advertising copy that went along with the house plans I've posted above, which were drawn up for a physician:
The walls are wainscoted, ceiling finished in wood, giving an old-time welcome and an hospitable appearance to those coming in to visit the family, and that which should be felt on entering any house, no matter how humble it may be . . . . The Doctor said he wanted no paint, no graining, but his pine was to be pine--his ash, ash. No deception was to be put in his house and he has got none . . . This home is not an expensive one, but a home in every sense of the word, where the homely virtues daily grow stronger, and the true, manly acts of kindness, charity and good feeling toward all men are the ruling principle.
It is revealing, too, that the doctor's house was built so that he could receive patients there, in his own home.

Now compare some typical real-estate advertising copy from last Sunday's News & Record:
Backyard private paradise offers multi-level outdoor living w/gazebo, hot tub, & bar. Hardwoods . . . . Beautiful sunroom that overlooks yard and backs up to woods . . . . Fireplace w/gas logs, renovated Kitchen w/stainless gas range . . . . Great ranch on cul-de-sac! Den with skylight and wet bar. Extra large Master Bedroom.
On the whole, I think it's fair to say that the Victorians saw their houses as places to exercise and strengthen "the homely virtues" of both public and private charity, kindness, and hospitality. They believed in this strongly enough that saying so helped sell house plans! Whereas we (myself very much included) tend to see our houses primarily as retreats for privacy, restoration, and pleasure. Or, as Philip Bess once put is, as places devoted to "the care and tending of the autonomous self."

Of course, we're never going back to the Victorian way of life. But I think we could learn a thing or two from they way they thought about their houses.

Saturday, March 5, 2005

Mending sump

As far as I'm concerned, the only thing scarier than The Exorcist is the crawlspace under my house.

First, there's the fact that, whenever I go there, I'm reminded that building codes were non-existent when my house got put together. There's some structural work under there that would make a building inspector feel faint. (When they say, "they don't build 'em like they used to," that's not always a bad thing.)

On top of that, there's an accumulated tangle of wiring, rewiring, plumbing, and replumbing, some of which dates back to Teddy Roosevelt's candidacy on the Bull Moose ticket.

But nastiest of all is the sump, as you can see. On Wednesday our 10-year-old pedestal model broke, and it was my Saturday task to replace it. Aaack.

I went for a submersible model this time, which turned out to require a new stop valve in addition. Of course, when I got it home, I realized that the valve needed a PCV adapter, which required the purchase of a length of PVC pipe, too, and of course a can of PVC cement.

Two more trips to McKnight's Hardware later, all I had to do was dredge the old sump pit out by hand (double aaaaack), and she's sucking water like Charybdis.

If I'm lucky, I won't have to go down there for another three months, when it'll be time to change the furnace filter.


(For the poetry lovers among you, here's a link to Kenneth Koch's Mending Sump, a delicious parody of Robert Frost's Mending Wall and Death of the Hired Man.)

Tuesday, March 1, 2005

"Talking Properties"

That was the subject line in one of the 50 real-estate spam messages in my inbox today. Providential! Because I was thinking about the fact that buildings talk to me.

I don't know whether this is true of most people. I'm pretty sure that I spend a lot more time looking at and thinking about buildings than most people do, and there's some significant chance that what they "say" to me is entirely subjective. But maybe not.

For example, my recent critic didn't like the way I used the pejorative term "snout house" to refer to houses like this one,

on which a front-facing garage is the dominant and forward-most architectural feature. He pointed out that this arrangement is highly functional, and that is undeniable. But is the arrangement also communicative? It is to me.

A blank, closed, very large automatic door says (to me), "Get lost. Owner's cars only." That message is reinforced by the fact that there's no hardware on the garage door -- it can only be opened by the owners. It's kind of like a vault door; opaque and impenetrable. But if it's open, you see too much -- cars, owners' junk, and clutter. In either case, the owner has put forth a view that doesn't have much appeal.

The small, recessed front door, which can be accessed only by walking in the driveway, says, "Well, approach if you must. But you have to share with the cars." Whenever I walk up one of these drives, I always kind of feel like I'm trespassing.

This next house looks a lot friendlier to me, even though it, too, has a front facing garage, no separate sidewalk to the front door, and even a fence:

To me, this house says "Hello! We like visitors!", because the front porch -- a comfortable space for greetings and goodbyes -- is the most prominent feature of the front elevation. There's even some furniture there, which shows the owners' desire to make themselves available for some casual conversation in a public-and-private space.

Both houses are modest, and I'm sure they're both affordable by middle class people. I can't say which example of architecture is "better." But the two houses say very different things to me, and maybe to other people, too. I know which one I'd prefer to visit and live in.

Update: Since we're talking about affordable housing, see what Michael Christopher has to say about Habitat for Humanity.